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What are the wider consequences of universities moving online?

Announcements of teaching via video-link have implications for students and the economy. 

By Stephen Bush

The University of Cambridge has become the first British university to announce that all lectures will be conducted via videolink in the 2020-21 academic year, after Anglia Ruskin and the University of Manchester both announced they would conduct lectures via video-link for the first term. 

These are decisions with major implications for the academic experience of current students, but ones with even bigger potential ramifications for the funding of British higher education. That has wide-reaching economic effects, not just because of the long-run benefits to higher education but the immediate importance of universities to their local economies. 

The introduction of tuition fees, and the subsequent increases, resulted in a decrease in the number of students taking a year out in order to minimise their costs. We know prospective students are price-sensitive: tuition fee increases have not led to significant decline in the number of students applying, regardless of income or background, but they have resulted in changes in behaviour. 

Will prospective students – particularly international students, whose higher fees are important to so many universities – decide to give it a miss this year? Will others opt to defer mid-course? The fees regime for domestic students makes dropping out midway financially prohibitive, but if you are an international student paying higher fees regardless, you might take a different view.

These are big, immediate financial challenges for universities and they have significant consequences for the rest of the economy. Universities are yet another reminder that without the necessary infrastructure to test, trace and isolate, and to reduce community spread, there is no path back to something like normal life. And that means there is no meaningful path back to a normal economy either. 

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